Only when we watched the helicopter flyovers of New Jersey and New York Wednesday could we fully absorb the level of devastation caused by superstorm Sandy.
It looked like Florida, August 2004, only many times larger and involving far more people. Only with entire neighborhoods burned to ash and the skeleton of a roller coaster sitting in the Atlantic off the Jersey shore. Life imitating science fiction?
The Northeast will dig out and rebuild. As we know well here, it will take an enormous effort by individuals and communities, by the state and federal governments. It will cost billions. The experience for individuals will be heart-breaking and maddening at times. Some may never get back what they once had; in some instances, communities actually may improve.
Some overall observations:
• While we’ve seen its failures, the federal emergency management system is critical. A disaster of this magnitude, affecting so many jurisdictions, demands the mobilization of national resources. The federal government must respond quickly and it must do so with a minimum of red tape and bureaucratic hot-dogging. It needs to coordinate well with states and local governments.
This is the essence of our federal system. This is when the system should be most valuable. The larger whole supports the smaller states, counties, cities and towns.
• The immediate, positive tone and the public working relationship displayed by President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was laudable, especially in the context of the divisive presidential campaign. Whatever happens next week, most Americans believe this is the way the system should work. The positive, bipartisan approach should stand as an example of possibilities. We can only hope it might continue other than in times of crisis.
• Competence counts. FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate exemplifies the very concept of a competent public servant.
Fugate has seen storms like this and has managed large-scale public response to the many storms of 2004 and 2005. Nothing but plaudits for a guy who knows how to communicate, mobilize resources and get things done. He was first appointed to the state post by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, then to the national job by Democratic President Obama. Again, competence trumps partisan considerations.
• Reconsider a national catastrophe fund. Whether to rebuild after tornadoes in the Midwest, wildfires in the West, ice storms in the North or wind storms in the Gulf and East Coast, some sort of capital fund is needed to spread insurance costs on a national level.
One model, which would establish a private-public partnership, was introduced in the Senate by Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Mel Martinez in 2007. Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Longboat Key, also introduced a catastrophe fund bill in the House that year. The good idea gained no traction. Perhaps now it will.
• Climate change is real. No matter if you believe global warming is caused by man or nature, the overwhelming scientific data suggests that with rising seas and warming temperatures we may see more extreme weather phenomena and a higher likelihood of floods from these storms, due to the higher sea levels.
The future suggests an even greater need for FEMA and state preparedness, including on our own coast.